Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Whale Watching Trip

(an account of a whale watching trip with our son)

We went on a small boat trip on one weekend early in August. We hoped to see some whales. Word was that unusual numbers of anchovies in the Monterey Bay were attracting unusual numbers of ocean life – from birds to dolphins to whales. To visit, feast and frolic. This in turn was attracting unusual numbers of whale watchers.

There were two parts to deciding to go. One was making peace (again) about watching wildlife from a boat.  Second was if our son, M (11), would be able to handle a long boat trip with an unpredictable agenda. Previously on smaller boat rides he sat quietly in his life-vest, without a smile anywhere and was very relieved when the ride was over. And back when he was a baby, he was confused as to why he couldn’t get into the water and wriggled in my arms, trying to dip his fingers into the water.
But much water has crossed under the bridge since then.

We chose a smallish boat from the small town of Moss Landing (pop. 204). There were 20-25 people waiting at the dock. The boat was late by ½ hour. I put on my sea-sickness band and took one to my son.

He has special needs. He will need some time to put on the band, I said. The young man dispensing the bands agreed amiably. It took a few minutes for the husband and me to convince our son to try it on.

All this time, I felt the presence of a man, a fellow passenger standing behind us, sort of disapproving something about our interactions. He didn’t know that a person can have sensory difficulty to accept something new on his skin.
I often face that. Most likely the man did not know that M has autism. It was not apparent to him (to some it is not apparent and to some, it is). Also, some symptoms tend to fluctuate. 

Earlier, I had shown M pictures from the website of the boat trip and discussed the flow, the expectations. How it will begin and when it will end. What the main purpose was. I asked if he wanted to go. He said he wanted to. However, I could sense some anticipation anxiety in him on our car ride there. 
I had also discussed what to expect during the ride with the owner of the boat, who gave some helpful suggestions. 


Then just like that, the time came and we were at the steps to the boat. I went up the steps.
But the idea is different from actual experience. M hesitated. The steps were moving. 

I heard a small no 

It is okay, I explained, from the other side. It moves a little because it is on water. Hold my hand. no...

I quickly looked at the line behind him and his father. The lady next in line kept a small distance and was smiling in understanding. Phew. The boat guide was patient. Phew.

(I had expected this, M's hesitation, when he actually has to get onto the boat. It also happens when we have to board a plane. He needs a few seconds where perhaps he has to accept for himself the change in state)

It’s not that he is saying - No, I don’t want to go. It could be (and most likely is) No, not yet. No, I’m not quite sure I can do this. But he doesn’t have these verbal strings of words at his disposal on the spur.

I waited and offered my hand again. You’ll be fine once you cross over the steps. We’ll sit over there on that bench. Then just like that, M came over.  The three of us settled on a on a bench.

The boat took off even as we were fitting a requisite life vest on him. For a while M was fearful. He held on tightly to his father or to me. A sudden surge in new, raw sensations is so difficult for him. It adds a range of extra unpredictability to a body that processes sensory inputs differently. It took 10-15 minutes for him to get over the fear and give relaxation a chance.


Soon we were at the side of the boat, watching the water. Our eyes  glued to the water. It’s just the motion of the boat, I further said. The waves go up and down and so the boat goes up and down. He smiled. If you stand with your feet apart, you’ll be stable. He tried that.
Interesting, how a boy who can spin like a top on a spinning-trapeze and casually come back to a graceful standing position without feeling any dizziness- can find this experience unsettling.

Humpback whales showed up. Moving freely in the waters. They didn’t jump out of the water but were swimming in a relaxed pace. To spot the squirt, then to see the enormous body come out, and then to see the tail roll over – was out of this world. Actually we could tell there was a whale around somewhere by the number of boats waiting in a big circle. It felt like a flexed intrusion into peaceful whale habitat and made me uncomfortable.

I went back to our bench. Is your son feeling sick? A woman sitting next to me slowly asked.

M was standing close to his father, still unsure in his skin and err… a little bundled up (by me). 

After a pause I said- He has autism

She stared back for a few seconds as expression drained from her eyes. She took a breath.  Is he liking the boat?

I think so

It is so good of you both to bring him, she said warmly.

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. We chatted some more.

She was part of a big connected party which was more than half of the boat. We met civility and understanding from the co-passengers we interacted with. They understood M’s needs and expression and let that go into the background. Also there were no extra challenges thrown up from any side.

The only challenges were that he met by himself- the sound and vibrations of the boat being perceived differently by him, his vestibular and proprioceptive systems making his balancing and regulation different, not having all the tools of communication at his disposal even as newer demands were placed on him, resisting the sensory call of the water, the list goes on. He integrated them and found a way to put them in the background and be with the ride. 
He didn’t feel like typing. Too much was going on and his energies were grouped up in the experience.


Lo and behold, the up and down motion started to make me feel nauseous. I had been on boats before and had never felt this. It was awkward. I found our seat while M, now fully adjusted and having un-bundled himself, was freely going about the boat with his father. They sat at the side of the boat with other passengers and watched the whales. He loved the patterns the boat made in the waters.  He wasn’t looking for the boat ride to end.

Some playful dolphins and naughty sea otters came to show off. We saw at least two floating pods of sea lions. Then we saw a spotted whale which apparently has been coming to this bay for years. It has some spots from a collision with a tuna fish boat, 20 years ago. The boat we were on had a driver, and a guide who was giving many details of the types and features of the whales we were seeing but I was drifting in and out.

After what seemed to be a long time I asked, What’s the time? Because of that query I found out that we were on a 4-hr long trip! When I booked, I thought, I was sure, I was booking a 2-hr trip.

I made a mistake. I am careful with these details and yet somehow, I made a mistake. We were now ~3 hours into the trip. I was so relieved that I came to know of this in the last hour. I would have had some panic if I had come to know in the first hour. I didn’t pack lunch, I packed only some snacks and we were well past lunchtime. Then I knew why the baskets of others had so much good looking food!

No wonder it seemed like a long time on the boat. I was tired but M and his father seemed alright. It was a bit cloudy so we weren’t out in the sun and that helped. I noticed that the boat switched gears, rode fast and went up north.

Here the whales surfaced very close to the boat, on both sides. Mums and calves and friends. With them came the inevitable flattened water showing the shape of the whale that dived in. Like a mysterious mirror into another world.  Like fools we kept watching the same spot while the whales surfaced back elsewhere, even if they did. It was as if the boat was surrounded by whales. There weren’t other boats around and it didn’t seem like any intrusion, the whales easily outnumbered the boat and didn’t bother about us. I’m sure there were mostly humpback whales, not that it mattered to me or us. Wherever I looked I could spot a spout, then an inevitable whale or two or three. It was simply unreal.

I zoned out of the voices, the announcements and excitement. Just watched. A magnificent life form in its magnificent home. Such easy joy in its flight. In living. Is this for real? Is this world for real? If it is, the only thing that mattered seemed to be joy, the joy of living. Even now when I close my eyes that’s what I see- I see whales coming out of the vast gray ocean, diving back in and the tail flipping over.

Did he have a good time? A voice asked as we were leaving the boat. She was the lady waiting in line behind us when we were getting in. Another man come forward and offered a earnest hand when M was looking for a foothold on the moving steps (he didn’t seem to need it).

Later back at home in the quiet of our study, M typed a small something, after I suggested the title (in a 2-word poetic form that his teacher had asked him to experiment with over the summer).


Note. since this ride, M has been on smaller paddle boats on local lakes a few times and is loving the boating. Each time his adjustment period to the movement of the boat is getting shorter...